Ian Mond Reviews Pew by Catherine Lacey

Pew, Catherine Lacey (Farrah, Straus, Giroux 978-0374230920, $26.00, 224pp, hc) May 2020.

Catherine Lacey first came to my attention with her 2017 novel The Answers, a quirky thought experiment about pain management, the biology of love, and a bizarre project into human relationships funded by an eccentric movie star. Her latest book, Pew, is about a stranger, with no name, no memory, and no identity, who drops in on a small Southern town. They’re both cerebral novels, but whereas The Answers is bold, sophisticated, and intense, fizzing with ideas and threaded with an edgy sense of humour, Pew is muted and opaque, the prose spare and clean, the story told with the disaffected eye of a documentarian. For those with their finger on the pulse of contemporary fiction, it’s like anticipating a book by Ali Smith only to discover it’s been written by Rachel Cusk. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I love Smith and Cusk – but I was caught off guard by how different in tone and structure Pew is to The Answers. Once the shape of the story became clearer, and once I realised that Lacey, just like all of us, is grappling with the conflicts and contradictions of the current moment, I found myself in tune with this strange, arresting novel.

From the outset, our protagonist finds it difficult to identify themselves, their name, their gender or even what they look like; they see “nothing in particular” when they look in a mirror. The one thing they do know is that a church makes an excellent place to sleep. One Sunday morning they awake, on a church bench, to discover they are surrounded by the congregants who have just finished their prayers. A family – Steven, Hilda, and their boys – invite the narrator into their home. The family is friendly and warm, though their questions go unanswered, not because our narrator is mute (though they rarely speak), but because they are a mystery to themselves. When the Reverend comes to visit, ostensibly to interview the town’s new arrival, he names them Pew in honour of where they were found. With a friendly tone, undercut with a hint of menace, the Reverend centres on the confusion around Pew’s gender:

We need to know if you’re a boy or a girl… you need not be ashamed of looking the way you do – as God loves all his children exactly the same – but it’s simply not clear to us which one you are and you have to be one or the other, so unless you want us to figure it out the hard way, I think you should just tell us which one you are. Much easier.

As Pew gets handed from person to person, in the hope they will open up to someone, the reverse occurs. They become the repository of the stories and secrets of the residents, sitting in silence, casting no judgement. But as the days slip by, inexorably leading to the town’s mysterious annual Forgiveness Festival, Pew’s continued silence ferments doubt and suspicion among the residents.

My reference above to Rachel Cusk wasn’t entirely random. I’m sure I’m not going to be the only critic who compares Pew to Cusk’s Outline trilogy (which I highly recommend). Both feature narrators who, whether deliberately or reluctantly, take on the role of audience to an array of characters. For Cusk, there’s power to her protagonist’s silence, as it gives space to candid discussions about creativity, frayed relationships, and the challenges of being a parent. There’s an element of this in Pew, with the narrator acting as a confessor to dark truths about the town’s past, including the hanging of four innocent black men. Pew, however, does not have the same measure of self-awareness as Cusk’s narrator; they are as close to a blank slate as any human being can be and still be sentient. The uncertainty around Pew’s identity and origins – are they an angel, or a teenager fleeing abuse, or something far stranger? – gives the novel an allegorical flavour. It’s an allegory, though, that actively avoids teaching the reader a moral lesson. Rather, Lacey asks us to question our urge to categorise and label, to force or project an identity on those around us. On that note, what I found so confronting is that, just like the townspeople I was moderately frustrated at the ambiguity regarding Pew’s identity. More disturbing is that, while I was furious on Pew’s behalf when a nurse, and then a doctor, almost force them to undress to reveal their genitalia, there was a part of me that wanted a resolution to the question of their gender. Just as with her previous novel, The Answers, which examined our assumptions and preconceptions about love and pain, Pew, in focussing on the big issues of the day – race, gender, and immigration – compels us to pause, reflect, and then interrogate our own hard-wired beliefs and prejudices.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.

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